‘Space Force’? More like Space Flop

July 6, 2020

Photo from United States Space Force

The first season of Netflix’s original series “Space Force” shoots for the stars and lands flat on its face. It’s an attempt at a punchy, political comedy about the United States Space Force—a real branch of the U.S. military created by President Donald Trump in 2019. But like the actual Space Force, the series’ propagandizing fails to fool its audience. 

The show opens on Mark R. Naird (Steve Carell), a general appointed to Chief of Space Operations (the real title for the leader of the Space Force). The comedy is in the vein of Carell’s previous work, “The Office,” and fellow mid-2000s NBC sitcom “Parks and Recreation”—shows both spearheaded by “Space Force” co-creator Greg Daniels.

The cast includes stars like John Malcovitch (playing leftist scientist Dr. Adrian Mallory), Lisa Kudrow (Naird’s mysteriously incarcerated wife) and Jane Lynch (the navy chief) as well as cast members of Daniels’ previous works, like Ben Schwartz and Chris Gethard. Gethard naturally plays a conspiracy-nut and Schwartz plays a Twitter-obsessed marketer, similar to his role as Jean-Ralphio Saperstein on “Parks and Recreation.”

Carell’s performance, particularly during an impromptu dance routine to the Beach Boys’ 1988 track “Kokomo,” is nothing short of impressive. His previous role as the ignorant boss in “The Office” clearly informs his work as an out-of-touch military leader. In the pilot, the setting sun reflects on Carell’s face as he dances his worries away—tying in that element of ridiculousness that makes Carell so enjoyable to watch.

The show is filled with long tracking shots that give the Space Force a sense of excitement as the gang works to foil international plots against the U.S. and impress a host of military and government personnel trying to attack the young military force. The camera work emphasizes the fast-paced nature of your average space thriller, bringing the busy branch to life.

While the performances and cinematography are enticing, watching “Space Force” feels like watching propaganda. It forces the audience to question the show’s own proposition—that its characters are the heroes of this story. It asks the viewer to believe in the series, while Space Force so clearly doesn’t believe in itself.

To understand the central failure of “Space Force,” a little background on the titular military branch is necessary. The U.S. Space Force is made up of about 16,000 people and offers “Space Warfighting Courses” on disciplines like “Orbital Warfare,” “Space Battle Management” and “Space Electronic Warfare,” according to a U.S. Space Force press release. These trainings take place at a Space Education and Training Center located in Colorado—the state the Netflix series is based in.

Clearly, the Netflix original had a lot to work with.

But despite a wealth of opportunity to poke some light-hearted fun, “Space Force” tries to play both sides of the political spectrum. The show pivots from making quick jabs at the President—who never actually appears but instructs Naird via Twitter—to justifying a bloated defense spending budget. It moves from criticizing the first lady’s fashion sense to poking fun at an Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez-type character for focusing on the poor. The show’s criticism doesn’t come from taking a side but instead takes aim at every ideology indiscriminately.  

“Space Force” takes on the burden of a rationality-challenged Trump administration with the toolkit of casual one-liners and quirky characters. It jumps from a sometimes clever, sometimes strained critique of the U.S. government to harken back to the American dream: despite our politics, we are not so different. 

And as the audience learns, “Space Force” just can’t effectively play for both teams. While the show is built on selling across-the-aisle cooperation—and even some bipartisan romance—it fails to commit to compromise. To sell cooperation with the current administration, Daniels and Carell have to sell cooperation with President Donald Trump. They can’t. The show fails to reconcile its belief in compromise with its simultaneous belief that President Trump is beyond reason. 

Instead, the show and its characters repeatedly try to dodge the presidential bullet. They spend an episode avoiding the first lady’s calls. They turn the president into a shadowy figure, alluded to but never seen nor heard (beyond a few tweets of course). And as the characters flee from the first family, the show too runs from addressing the critical flaw in its ideology. “Space Force” doesn’t believe in working with the president. It doesn’t believe we can all be friends. 

To be fair, no show could do what “Space Force” is trying to do. The appeal of “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation” stems from their good, quirky characters succeeding in low-stakes situations. The conflict the show centers on—be it a terrible boss or government red tape—is not the high-stakes reality “Space Force” is trying to conquer. In “Space Force,” people can die, wars can be waged and everyone is at risk. As a result, neither the show’s format or its characters can bear the weight of what it is trying to address. Dr. Mallory is a scientist advocating for a peaceful exploration of space, despite working for a military branch. Naird is a general inclined to seek out diplomacy in a culture full of escalatory personalities. With characters so antithetical to the ideology behind the U.S. Space Force, the viewer is left wondering, why haven’t they quit already? 

Naird is distinguished from his peers in an early scene in the first episode, where he’s awarded command of the Space Force and another general heckles him, saying, “Tell me what. Did you wear a dress?” Naird responds, “Gender roles. Offensive and out of date just like you.” Naird isn’t like other generals, the show seems to whisper: He’s woke. 

But by presenting the environment of the U.S. military as trigger-happy and old-fashioned, the viewer is left to question whether these characters are actually the heroes of this story, or the villains. Are the employees of the space force—who work for a president who has threatened to shoot protestors, who’s been accused of sexual assault, who’s known for racist, sexist and ignorant comments—complicit or heroes? “Space Force” stops short of engaging with this question, pushing the viewer to see sheep instead of wolves. 

“Space Force” subverts your average space clichés, where the good guys win and nobody dies. Instead of presenting viewers with the simple narrative of space exploration for exploration’s sake, the show is mired by reality—political conflict, unnecessary and militant aggression and a distrust of fact. The series demonstrates so clearly that the simple narrative of a government-employed hero is incompatible with today’s reality. But “Space Force” refuses to look at its own inherent contradictions, in favor of digging its nails in and clinging to the desperate and untenable hope that we can all get along.

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